Humberside Geologist No. 14
Humberside Geologist Online
Abstracts of lectures
March 10th, 1898.
SOME OPEN QUESTIONS IN EAST YORKSHIRE GEOLOGY.
MR. G. W. LAMPLUGH, F.G.S., of H.M. Geological Survey.
I am here to-night because I have been told that my old comrades in this Society were wishful, after an interval of some years, to hear something more from me on the subjects in which we are all so much interested. Much of what I have to say may be to most of you a tale many times told, but your sympathies in the matters we shall discuss are, I trust, sufficiently deep to prevent the re-iteration becoming wearisome to you.
I propose, in fact, to direct your attention, as local geologists, to the region which lies within easy access around you, to point out what is already known in regard to it, and what is still unknown from want of investigation.
And it seems to me that in doing this I shall be better serving the cause of Science and the objects of the Society than if I were to ask you to listen to an account of the fresh ground on which it has been my lot to work since I left this neighbourhood.
There is occasionally a tendency among scientific workers, professional as well as amateur, to regard their own work--and, to a less extent, that of others -- on a given subject as final and exhaustive. But in point of fact no scientific work -- be it ever so minute, and its subject ever so circumscribed -- can be exhaustive or final; and if it pretend so to be, then its value is so much the less, since the pretension proves the narrowness of its basis. In the interlinked network of cause and effect out of which is built as much of the universe as lies within our comprehension, we may trace out for a space, here and there, a chain of pendant links. But each individual link is a centre upon which an infinite number of such chains converge and diverge; and that which we have traced can be no more than an inconsiderable though yet essential element in the whole pattern.
However, we are not here to indulge in vague philosophy, and must confine ourselves within the limits of a subject wide enough, in all faith, to tax our mental energies to the utmost. Even supposing it were the case that all the available facts in regard to this subject had already been collected, there would still be magnificent possibilities in the re-grouping of such facts. As the matter stands, in this as in every other neighbourhood with which I am acquainted, so far from all the facts having been collected I shall be able to show that on several questions, not of local importance merely but of the broadest general bearings, we are at a standstill for want of data which might be gathered by any earnest worker. Ordinary intelligence and extraordinary diligence are the only equipment necessary for the task.
First, let us take the case of the deposits nearest us in age, which are so widely developed here immediately under our feet. These Recent and Post-Glacial Deposits -- what do we know of them? What changes of level or of climate do they denote? What time-interval do they represent? What succession of faunas?
On all these points we are practically ignorant; and yet they are of the widest importance. The scraps of information that have been gathered since Prof. Phillips drew attention to the deposits seventy years ago are just sufficient to indicate the wealth of knowledge which is available. Nathorst and Clement Reid found leaves of the Arctic Birch in fresh-water marls at Bridlington Quay and Holmpton, proving a climate much colder than at present; but whether these conditions were separated from the Glacial Period by a milder interval, as Reid suggests, or whether they indicate a stage in a steadily ameliorating climate after the departure of the Ice Sheet, is still an open question. Certain Mammals, some of them such as the Irish Elk and Bos primigenius now extinct, are known to have inhabited Holderness since Glacial times; and Reid has done good pioneer work at Hornsea and a few other places in determining the associated animal and vegetable remains preserved in these old alluvial deposits. But the succession and changes of the flora and fauna by which the desolation of the Glacial Period has been transformed into the exuberance of the present is an all but untouched field, with a rich harvest awaiting the diligent worker.
In that same post-glacial field there are numerous other questions to be solved. It is said that at Saltburn a post-glacial raised beach exists at an elevation of about thirty feet above sea-level. There are appearances in the cliff at Peak which might possibly denote a similar depression of the land, but nowhere else on the Yorkshire coast have I seen any evidence for it. Where are its traces in Holderness, and in the Humber Gap? If present in the one area and absent in the other, can it be taken to indicate an unequal sub-recent movement of elevation, which has tilted the country from north to south? Is there any other evidence of such tilting? The question awaits the investigator.
What other movements of elevation and depression have taken place since glacial times? My own conviction is that Holderness has remained a land surface ever since the departure of the ice sheet; but as to what extent it may have been uplifted above its present elevation I have no very definite opinion. It does not seem likely that it can have been very much higher than at present, for otherwise the valleys cut across it by the streams flowing from the Wolds should have been deeper. Yet an elevation which laid bare the bottom of the North Sea between this country and the continent is usually postulated, and certainly some kind of bridge must have been necessary for the incoming of the larger mammals. May they not have crossed the ice sheet itself?
As for that still more important question -- Why are not the implements of Palaeolithic man found in this part of England? -- it has been asked so many times that I need scarcely repeat it. Nevertheless Holderness is pre-eminently an area in which to seek an answer.
We want to know, too, more about the drainage of Holderness -- or shall we say its want of drainage--during this period, and the relation of the dry valleys of the chalk to the flood gravels which overlie the drift deposits at their mouths. In fact, as compared with what we already know, we want to know almost everything with regard to the course of events since the Glacial Period. Wide generalizations have been built into this blank space. On the one hand, on the strength of evidence imported from Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and the Alps, a whole cycle of elevations and depressions has been recognized, with assorted climates -- mild and cold, wet and dry. On the other hand, we have been told chiefly on account of investigations made in North America, that the time-interval since the disappearance of the ice-sheet is comparatively short -- even no more than some ten or fifteen thousand years.
Now there is no more important question than this of the lapse of time in the whole domain of geological science. We do not find much difficulty in comprehending the manner in which the rocks we study have been formed, nor in grasping broadly the sequence of events in the past history of the earth. But as yet all our efforts to gain a clear mental impression as to the actual time consumed in the building up of the different rock-masses have failed. We know it must have been long -- very, very long; but when we try to image the term in years we never know how many ciphers to add after our figure, for even a single stratum in the sequence. Now and again an astronomer or a physicist has proffered us his assistance, and we have listened awhile with respect; but only to find, on pressing the question, that his premises have been as vaguely speculative as our own wildest guesses. Thus in spite of the precession of the equinoxes, the secular cooling of the globe, the diminished tidal effects, we are yet as far as ever from attaining measure for geological time. And I cannot help thinking that it will be from the application of direct geological observation in the field, and not from the deductions drawn in the study regarding cosmic processes, that we shall eventually attain the information we desire. Already the first steps have been taken in this direction, by measuring the present rate of silting in estuaries, the recession of water-falls, the weathering of exposed rock-surfaces, etc. And in this regard the more recent deposits are the most important of all.
If a Post-glacial time-value is within reach anywhere it should be in a region like Holderness, where fresh-water and estuarine deposits have been laid down continuously since glacial times. Of course I do not wish to imply that even in Holderness anyone should expect to go out for an easy afternoon excursion with a pocket-compass and a geological hammer and come back with a Post-glacial time-value figured out in his note book. Permanent results are not to be achieved without continuous endeavour. But I think that if any among you would patiently and systematically lay siege to the question he could not fail in some degree to dispel the haze of ignorance which obscures our view of the Post-glacial history of this region, and give us some clearer idea of the amount of time it represents. Our lack of knowledge is not from lack of material but from lack of workers to unearth the facts.
As with the Post-Glacial, so also with the Glacial deposits. There is scarcely a point in regard to them which does not require further elucidation. It is satisfactory to find that there are those among you who realize it and are doing excellent work in this direction. Your President, DR. WALTON, has recently materially increased our knowledge of the deposits banked against the Hessle Cliff; your Secretary, MR. STATHER, has described the Drift sections at Ferriby and has shown that they have been formed by an ice-lobe passing through the Humber Gap; while to the industry and powers of observation of MR. SHEPPARD we owe the discovery of fresh facts in regard to the so-called Inter-glacial deposits of Burstwick and to the Scandinavian and other boulders, and the further investigation of the fauna of the Elloughton gravels, besides the recognition of a glaciated surface in Robin Hood's Bay; and other members have made useful contributions to our knowledge of the erratic boulders of the district.
Therefore I hope it may be that in pointing out the open questions in this branch of our enquiry, I am merely anticipating work which you already have in hand. The Society has hitherto amply justified its existence, and as this branch of geology seems to have an especial interest for you we may expect that much more will be accomplished therein.
At the outset, there is the vital question as to the evidence for an Interglacial Period. My colleague, MR. CLEMENT REID, whose opinion on such subjects is entitled to the greatest respect, after surveying the greater part of Holderness came to the conclusion, which I believe he still holds, that the gravels with fragmentary marine shells which occur as mounds and ridges in various parts of Holderness are of marine origin and denote a mild Interglacial stage, and that they may be equivalent to the Buried Cliff beds of Sewerby and Hessle. Now from these conclusions I have always felt compelled to demur, and am as strongly as ever of opinion that the Sewerby Cliff Beds are older than the shelly gravels of Holderness, and that the latter have been formed at the margin of the ice sheet and afford no evidence for an Interglacial Period.
I am not quite satisfied that the Sewerby and the Hessle Cliffs have been contemporaneous though they seem to be at about the same level and to agree fairly well with the level at which Mr. Jukes-Browne has obtained evidence of a Buried Chalk-cliff in Lincolnshire. But at any rate, the so-called Interglacial gravels, even where several miles distant from the buried cliff, in the direction in which there is supposed to have been open water, are at a higher level than the beach with which they are correlated; while at Lowthorpe, Kilham and other places they run up the flanks of the Wolds at a level considerably higher than the top of the old cliff.
To enter into the full discussion of this subject would absorb the rest of the evening, so that I must let it pass with the general statement that I consider the presence of Interglacial beds in the area to be still unproved. Hence it seems to me that all the descriptions which have been given of Interglacial conditions in this part of Yorkshire may be erroneous, as also the theoretical conclusions as to the oscillations of climate deduced from them.
This then is an open question of the widest import, and the solution of it would well repay the worker for the time spent in the investigation. Incidentally too, he would probably settle some other points which are as yet unsolved.
He ought, for example, to make out the true relation of the estuarine silt at Kirmington to the shelly gravel at Croxton with which it has on doubtful grounds been correlated, and might find whether any glacial drift occurs at Kirmington beneath the silt or whether any other deposit intervenes between it and the solid chalk. Members of your Society have already discovered the presence of boulder-clay above it, which had been hitherto unknown; and this makes it the more fitting that they should complete the investigation.
Again, I would call your attention to the inadequate knowledge we possess of the drifts which lie below sea-level in Holderness.
The so-called "Basement" Boulder Clay which rests directly upon the disintegrated chalk on Flambro' Head is seen extending down to low water mark at Dimlington and the adjacent parts of the Holderness coast, where the top of the chalk is not likely to be less than 100 feet below. How deep does the Basement clay extend in these sections? Does it behave as in the cliffs of Robin Hood's Bay, and in places north of Whitby, where the lower boulder clays show a capacity for thickening to an extraordinary extent in the hollows of the old rock surface? Or are there in Holderness older beds beneath? The character of drifts on a plain is usually different from their character on hilly ground; and there are reasons for suspecting that their base below sea-level in Holderness is different from that which is seen in the cliff-sections. Along with the patches of sea-bottom which occur so frequently as boulders in the Basement Clay, I have found a few patches of fresh-water origin, probably in like manner torn up from the floor over which the Ice-sheet moved. Now we know that in Norfolk a most important series of fresh-water deposits of Pliocene age occurs at the base of the drifts; and it is reasonable to presume that these beds once extended much farther north. Were they entirely removed from East Yorkshire during the passage of the Ice-sheet, or do some of them lie hidden beneath the drift-plain? From the fact that the buried chalk cliff at Sewerby, with which most of you are acquainted, has sheltered from destruction a little sample of the beds older than the Basement Boulder Clay, including not only the old shingle-beach but also the remains of a land surface and of the sand-dunes which covered it, there are really good grounds for thinking that similar remnants may exist here and there beneath the drift-covering in Holderness. Therefore the borings which are put down from time to time in that district to tap the water of the chalk should be carefully watched while they are in progress, since the material to be obtained from any one of them may yield results of the greatest geological importance. I believe that some of your members are fully alive to this, but it would be commendable if either collectively or individually you would undertake systematically to examine and report upon all the deeper well-borings in Holderness.
Another great and almost untouched field for research in regard to the Glacial Deposits, which is close at hand, is the district to the west of the Wolds between the Humber and the Derwent. Of the conditions in this area during the great Ice Age we know practically nothing. We know that one lobe of the Ice Sheet moved for some distance southward down the Vale of York, and that another crept westward through the Humber Gap; but whether these ever coalesced in the intermediate region is still open to question. And if they did not, the state of the western Wold-foot during the period affords a highly interesting problem.
Was it dry land, or was it occupied by the waters of a glacier-dammed lake as some have supposed? My own belief, not at all dogmatically held, is that the Yorkshire Wolds formed a buttress or retaining wall for the North Sea Glaciers, which was never over-ridden ; and therefore that the western Wold-foot was likely to remain unglaciated, except where covered by the southward advance of the lobe of the Vale of York, or by the westward expansion of the ice-stream through the Humber Gap. The presence of the richly mammaliferous deposit at Bielbecks in this area, discovered by a Hull man, MR. W. H. DYKES, 70 years ago, and described by the REV. W. VERNON HARCOURT and PROF. PHILLIPS, adds an additional interest to the question, by reason of the controversy which is now raging as to the true character and relations of the Pre-glacial and Post-glacial faunas. And there is plenty of substance-matter for the study of the district. Beach-gravels of great complexity, much trenched by later erosion, are present in abundance; around its margin spread the great low-lying deposits of sand and warp, the age of which has not yet been demonstrated; and in the central area there have been numerous deep borings, of which DR. PARSONS, 2O years ago, published an invaluable record. In short the most ambitious worker might find scope therein for his full energies for many a year, and with the reasonable expectation that his time would be well spent.
These are merely examples of the unsolved problems in relation to the glacial deposits of East Yorkshire; I might lengthen the list to a wearisome extent.
No better illustration could be given of the open field which these subjects afford than that in spite of all that has been written upon the glaciation of the area, it was reserved for your member MR. SHEPPARD and his companion MR. H. MUFF two or three years ago to discover the striated rock-surface near Robin Hood's Bay, and still more recently for MR. STATHER to find a similar surface on Filey Brig, while previously only one such case had been known in the whole of East Yorkshire.
Yet, after all, our knowledge of the Glacial beds is fully as advanced as our knowledge of the underlying solid rocks.
The inadequacy of our information regarding the Chalk of Yorkshire, considering the wide expanse of country which it covers and the frequency and extent of the natural and artificial exposures in which it is revealed, is positively surprising. With the exception of the detailed work done by MR. W. HILL a few years ago on the lower portion, and the bare outline-sketches on a wider scale of PHILLIPS, BARROIS, BLAKE and others, there is practically no information available on the subject.
The state of our knowledge may be gauged by the fact that when, three years ago, I brought together my own scattered notes it became evident to me that instead of this formation having a maximum thickness of 800 feet as hitherto stated, its thickness could not be less than 1270 feet, and might be considerably more. Then as for its sub-divisions ; we know that on the coast the upper part is flintless, and the middle part flinty, and the lower again practically flintless, and that these lithological distinctions seem to be well defined and traceable. But it remains yet an open question whether the upper limit of the occurrence of the flint-nodules holds constant in the interior, or whether, as I believe MR. MORTIMER still thinks, the flints may in certain localities invade both higher and lower zones. An investigation of this point is the more to be desired since we know that in the south of England the flints characterise the uppermost part of the Chalk formation.
Again as for the fossil zones of the chalk; while in the more southerly portion of its range such zones have been already worked out with much exactitude, there is really very little known in respect to them when we get to the north of the Humber. It is true that DR. C. BARROIS thought that he could identify the leading sub-divisions which he had traced elsewhere; but it does not need a very close acquaintanceship with the district to recognize that his work must be regarded as only provisional.
In this case it may be acknowledged that the task is one of great difficulty on account of the sparsity of fossils in many localities and also because of the very extended range of most of those which do occur, so that any one undertaking the investigation would need to have great patience and persistence of purpose. But already a good beginning has been made, and within the last two years your secretary MR. STATHER has obtained such excellent results in the field that we shall look for him to continue in it. I need scarcely remind you that any investigator of the Yorkshire chalk-fossils will find the most material aid in the most difficult portion of his task in the magnificent collection brought together by MR. MORTIMER from what had been regarded as the almost barren zones of the Flinty Chalk. An examination of MR. MORTIMER'S collection with its abundance of strongly marked and readily identifiable fossil-types in several classes of the Animal Kingdom should serve to encourage the most despondent worker as to the possibility of establishing a succession of life-zones in the Yorkshire Chalk. In attempting this it appears to me that it will be better while paying due heed to the wider correlations to consider first the local convenience, and to select for zonal purposes whatever fossils may be found to be most widely distributed laterally and most restricted in vertical range, since for stratigraphical purposes it is of paramount importance that the zonal fossil should be one which is fairly abundant and can be readily discovered.
In the South of England the echinoderms usually fulfil these conditions and are therefore most commonly taken as the zonal forms; but I am doubtful whether these will serve in Yorkshire, where they are not only as a rule rare, but also indifferently preserved. I would suggest that an attempt be made provisionally to use the Inocerami, at any rate for the wider divisions, as these shells are among the most plentiful fossils in Yorkshire, and are split up into several distinct and readily recognisable species, some of which will I think be found to have a definite vertical range. Then, for the narrower zones or sub-zones other fossils must be sought; and one, at least, comes ready to hand in Marsupites ornatus, which characterises a well-marked narrow belt about midway in the Flintless Upper Chalk, and in Yorkshire does not seem to range far either above or below this belt, though elsewhere its zone is usually held to be of much wider dimensions.
The recognition of traceable fossil-zones in the East Yorkshire chalk would be as important to the general stratigraphy as to the palaeontology of the district. Owing to the sameness of lithological character the faults and disturbances which have affected the area have not been worked out; and we know little or nothing of the nature of the movements it has undergone. From the evidence of the cliff-sections and from isolated exposures inland it is certain that Post-Cretaceous disturbances of considerable magnitude exist; but the numerous important faults which affect the Oolitic rocks to the north of the Wolds have not yet been traced within the Chalk country. To what extent the disturbances seen in the Oolitic rocks were Pre-Cretaceous, and whether any of them and if so which, were Post-Cretaceous are still open questions of wide importance. The student who succeeds in tracing the fossil-zones of the Yorkshire Chalk should as a side-issue succeed also in solving this stratigraphical problem.
Another question of similar nature is as to the amount of the thinning of the chalk in a westerly direction. It has been proved that the Red Chalk and the Lower Chalk are greatly reduced in thickness on the western border of the Wolds as compared with their development on the eastern coast; and it is suspected but has not yet been demonstrated that there is a corresponding diminution in the Middle or Flinty Chalk, and that, in every part, the formation reaches its maximum thickness only on the eastern side of the Riding.
The wide bearings of this problem would make its solution an acceptable addition to our knowledge of the Upper Secondary Rocks of England.
Then a whole group of unanswered questions can be put with respect to the mode and rate of accumulation of the chalk sediments and the depth and condition of the sea bottom of the period, the solution of any one of which would be well worth the trouble it might cost. And here lies open an almost untrodden path of research, for I am satisfied from my experience of the subject that a minute examination of the chalk at different horizons with especial attention to the state of preservation of the organic remains contained therein, would yield a harvest of interesting and valuable results. This is an investigation which I had intended personally to pursue had it been my lot to remain in the district.
Again, I might call your attention to the absolute blank in our knowledge as to what beds may directly underlie the chalk at ever such a short distance within the escarpment.
It is true that in this case it is only by deep borings that the problem can be solved, and there is no immediate likelihood of being undertaken. But I mention the matter to bring forcibly before you how shallow our geological knowledge really is at present, and how deep we have yet to go before our information regarding the district can be considered in any way adequate.
The great unconformability at the base of the Chalk; the rapid south-westerly thinning of all the Jurassic strata; and the complete denudation from the crest of the Pre-Cretaceous anticline in the neighbourhood of Market Weighton and Huggate of all but their lowest members before the deposition of the chalk; combine to give an enormous range of possibilities to any borings which might pierce the Cretaceous rocks in, say, the vicinity of Beverley or Lockington. Add the fact that Professors Rucker and Thorpe in their magnetic survey of England in 1886 found that the magnetic declination was greater on the crest of this anticline than in almost any other part of the country, in their opinion indicating the presence of a ridge of heavy rocks at a comparatively shallow depth, and I think that in days of deep exploratory borings it is not too much to hope that the time may come when an underground investigation of this neighbourhood will be made; -- in which event "may we be there to see"!
As for the beds which emerge from beneath the chalk at the foot of the escarpment from Speeton to Knapton and thence southward to the Humber, the open questions which they supply would make too long a tale for one night. We must be content to take the extreme north-eastern tip of the area only, where my personal knowledge of what has been done and what remains undone is fairly comprehensive. There, at Speeton, is a section which it is impossible to exhaust. I visited it many hundreds of times during the years I spent at Bridlington, and yet whenever there happened to be a good exposure I never failed to find some detail of the stratigraphy or some fossil which was new to me.
Nor is this surprising when we consider that in this one section, compressed into a clayey series whose vertical thickness is probably not more than 300 feet, we have the marine history of the whole of the Lower Cretaceous period and more, and that the same sequence is represented in some parts of Europe by deposits which are in aggregate several thousands of feet in thickness.
With the lower part of Speeton Clay from the top of the Kimeridge Clay up to the "Cement Beds" in the zone of Bel. brunsvicensis we are fairly familiar, though even in this portion an industrious collector might add very considerably to the fossil lists. But between the "Cement Beds" and the base of the Red Chalk there is a space wherein both the stratigraphy and the paleontology are indefinite. Here the great slips of chalk usually conceal the section, and many fruitless examinations may be made before the favourable moment occurs for seizing upon some new fact of importance.
To illustrate that such facts can still be gleaned, I may mention that during a flying visit made to the section at Easter two years ago I found, in a stratum of brownish marly clay lying between the marls at the base of the Red Chalk and the top of the blue-black clays of the B. brunsvicensis Zone, excellent specimens of an unrecorded Belemnite, of which Mr. Stather had previously obtained fragments. This Belemnite has for the first time made clear the true relation of certain parts of the Lower Greensand of the South of England to the Speeton Series, and has also provided the clue for a correlation of the upper zones with the equivalent horizons in Heligoland and Brunswick, which other evidence has amply confirmed. Moreover the determination of the exact horizon at Speeton of the Hythe Beds or Kentish Rag of the South of England has made evident that we may still expect to find, between this bed and the marls with B. minimus which are known to represent part of the Gault of the South of England, another fauna as yet undiscovered, to wit that of the Sandgate and Lower Folkestone Beds. Hence a fresh section in the slipping cliff or on the foreshore to the eastward of Speeton Gap might at any time add a new chapter to the history of the subject.
Then again at the base of the series; some years ago I found in the uppermost layers of the Kimeridge Clay some Belemnites and other fossils, which were new to the horizon and have not since been obtained. But still lower down in the Kimeridge Clay, Leckenby stated that he obtained Am. evalidus (= eudoxus) which I have hitherto failed to find in place though there is not the slightest reason to doubt presence in the section.
Specimens of this fossil from Speeton are preserved in our public collections; but except for Leckenby's brief statement we know nothing of the beds which yielded it nor of the fauna which accompanies it.
And the want of this information is the greater inasmuch as the Kimeridge Clay of Yorkshire, in spite of the wide extent of its outcrop, is seen inland only in isolated exposures which give scarcely any information as to the succession of the fossil zones within it and its exact relationship to the Kimeridge Clay of the more southerly counties of England.
The so-called Middle Kimeridge of Filey Bay was founded on the presence of masses of shale occurring as boulders in the drift, most if not all of which have proved not to be Kimeridge Clay at all. Nevertheless we know that there must be a great thickness of this clay between Speeton and Filey and that lower zones than those which have been seen by us must occur between tide marks to the northward of Speeton and must in the past have been accessible to observation. It is reserved for some future investigator to rediscover these lower beds of the Kimeridge at Speeton and to make us cognisant of their fossil contents. And not on the coast only, but throughout the whole of its inland outcrop to the northward and westward of the Wolds, this Jurassic Clay affords an open field for further research with a promise of excellent results to the earnest labourer.
But I do not wish to stretch your patience more than is necessary to impress upon you the truth that, on every side and in every division, the rocks of this district abound in problems answerable to solution, and no geologist living in these parts can honestly excuse his inactivity by pleading the lack of new material. Such open questions as I have cited may serve as examples. I commend them as a first instalment to this Society, which at present is the chief centre of geological activity in this district. When these are satisfactorily solved, if the members or their successors need a fresh task and I am still alive, I shall be delighted to come again and present them with another instalment of my subject.
These remarks have unintentionally been somehow rather sermon-like, and therefore it seems quite fitting that we should conclude with a little moralising even though at the commencement I promised that we should avoid such courses. I should like to consider seriously for a moment the attitude of mind in which we have discussed these questions of Science. From my own experience I know that the hard-working man of affairs, finding in his general interest in such scientific matters only a welcome relief from the more pressing business of his life, is apt to listen with good-natured tolerance to what he regards in his heart as an altogether too serious and important tone on the part of those who enter more earnestly into these abstruse and scarcely practical studies. Nor is there anything to complain of in this; for after all with most of us the immediate duties of our daily life alone are those which are of really vital importance, and it is only the surplus of our mental energies remaining over and above our daily expenditure that we can spare to cast into these entertaining side-issues of intellectual activity. On the other hand, since it happens, in our highly specialized communities, that individuals can be detached to devote their whole force to these ultra-practical pursuits, we need not be surprised if they, on their part, develop a somewhat exaggerated idea of the value of their studies.
For after all, if we look far enough a-field we must perceive that the most profound revolution in the course of the intellectual development of mankind is this same great Desire of modern times for the knowledge of all knowable things. After many false starts and stoppages in the past it is now sweeping irresistibly forward among all civilized nations. Mankind awakening in a strange place, seeks anxiously to discover his surroundings.
This work of discovery we call Science; and as yet we cannot tell what the outcome of it will be. But this we know, that Science is the forlorn hope of the Intellect and furnishes its only chance for determining its true position in the scheme of things.
On this score alone, I think that we have the right to regard the interest which we take in Science as something more than a mere amusement or personal idiosyncrasy, since it brings us into communion with the great intellectual movement of our times. And if it be only a small portion of our energies which we can spare for the purpose, so much the greater reason why that portion should be devoted in earnest and not desultorily squandered. Even as a relaxation from our more onerous duties, the value of our time-outlay is increased according to the amount of interest which the subject awakens in us.
Indeed it appears to me that it is not until one becomes engrossed in the pursuit that one feels the full mental and bodily benefit to be derived from the complete change which the natural sciences can afford to anyone overworked in other spheres of human activity. The jaded brain even when in mood to resent a wider effort can still find relief and rest in the reconsideration of some familiar oft-examined matter to which it has become accustomed and attached. Therefore I would urge upon you that instead of spreading the attention thinly over a wide field in science you should concentrate it into the narrow channel most to your liking and cultivate the interest in the minor rather than in the major questions of your subject. In so doing it will be found that 'increase of appetite will grow by what it fed on'; and before long comes the zest of new discovery and the consciousness that some previously unknown fact, small perhaps, but still a veritable fact, has been seen and grasped for the first time, and that on this one point, at any rate, one is right in the fore-front of human knowledge. And thus the interest is kept up and point after point gained, until there comes the time when the sum-total affords an acceptable addition to the general fund of Science, and may, if the student be so inclined, with due deliberation be converted into an interesting page of scientific literature. In this manner one may acquire information, almost unconsciously and as a relief from other toil, which would cost much labour to another worker in Science who stood in need of it; and thus one takes rank as an original investigator helping on the growth of human knowledge, and in one's leisure hours may do work of a more permanent, even though less imperative, character than that which occupies the greater part of one's every-day life. That is how I regard these matters of Science; not as the paramount business of life when more imperative duties interfere, but always as the most worthy method known to me of utilising and storing up such mental activity as may remain over after the necessary expenditure on our daily occupation. And as with the individual so with the race. We may consider Science as the great savings-bank of human thought, into which mankind has begun to fund its reserve of mental activity. We have already a great and growing balance to our credit, from which we derive a remarkably good rate of interest in the shape of practical benefits.
And the members of this Society can all, if they wish, as I have tried to show tonight, become depositors of sums, larger or smaller according to their ability, which will go to increase this fund; and I hope it will seem to them, as it seems to me, to be pre-eminently a thing worth the doing.
Originally published in Transactions of the Hull Geological Society 4, 24-36
(c) Hull Geological Society 1999 + 2007